Seamounts and coral: a conservation diary from the deep

Pencil urchin (c) David Shale Seamounts are home to urchins of different colours, shapes and sizes, including this pencil urchin

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A team of scientists has set out on a six-week mission, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, to explore the Indian Ocean's underwater mountains, or seamounts.

The scientists aboard the research vessel, the RRS James Cook, will study life thousands of metres below the surface.

In the fifth and final of her BBC Nature diary entries, Aurelie Spadone from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, who is part of the team, recalls the wonders she has seen on her journey and her hopes for the future of these unique deep-sea habitats.

Start Quote

Aurelie Spadone

Countries have now the chance to regulate against exploitation and protect these unique habitats”

End Quote Aurelie Spadone IUCN

We are reaching the end of this expedition and time is flying by now.

On Wednesday, we will reach our final destination - Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Seeing land again is going to be a strange feeling for sure, not to mention walking on an immobile surface.

Writing this text feels like travelling back in time. Our departure from Cape Town seems an age ago.

We have seen so many things; beauties of the deep and scenes of desolation.

The first seamount of the expedition - Coral seamount - was certainly the most preserved and richest in life. Melville and Middle of What were seamounts that showed us two faces of these marine ecosystems: one very rich, beautiful and with a diverse fauna; the other quite devastated, with trawl marks and fishing gear on the bare seabed.

Sapmer was the seamount where we saw the fishing boat actively trawling. Most of the seabed has been damaged by trawling there, and we saw a lot of evidence of human activity on the seafloor, but inaccessible areas of the seamount still supported abundant life.

On Atlantis we saw lots of urchins, but also giant coral trees. Some parts have been fished, but the rocky seabed makes it more difficult for trawlers to work some areas.

Sea pen (c) David Shale Some species only live at a single seamount

We saw patches of extremely rich fauna on rocks just next to areas covered with debris and coral rubble. The top of the seamount, which is very flat, was mostly barren.

These five seamounts are very different in terms of their shape and size, their fauna and their diversity and abundance of marine life.

We have seen cliffs with elegant glass sponges, coral gardens, coral reefs, sandy areas with curly urchin tracks on them.

We have seen different fish species, sharks (from the slow-moving six gilled to another unidentified very angular species), urchins of different colours, sculptured shellfish, bright red shrimps and other delicate crustaceans.

We have seen beautiful sea spiders, three-metre-high bamboo corals and tiny solitary species. A good number of these were present only on one seamount and some only occupied a single slope of one seamount.

It has been a very enriching experience to be part of this expedition. I sincerely hope that the outreach of this cruise and the scientific results obtained will have significant impacts on the protection of seamounts in this and other parts of the world's oceans.

And I hope that the evidence of human impact on the seabed that we have gathered will help to ensure that measures are taken to manage the way we exploit seamounts, especially in view of the imminent threat of deep-sea mining.

With the UN General Assembly's new resolution on the deep-seas, countries have now the chance to regulate against exploitation and protect these unique habitats.

It is our planet, our oceans and their future in the balance.

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